As I went to the local supermarket this Ash Wednesday, I was surprised by a table outside on the sidewalk with two men in clerical collars. The sign said it all: “Ashes to Go.” They were administering ashes to shoppers.
I had already received my ashes from the priest at church, but I politely asked those manning the table if these particular ashes were Catholic. They said no that the Catholic ashes were available in the morning; theirs were Lutheran.
I snapped a picture since no one would believe me if I told them what I saw on my way into the supermarket that winter afternoon.
Indeed, I could hardly believe it myself. This is the kind of thing that is not supposed to happen in the public square in America. I thought to myself: “Ashes to Go” at a twenty-first century supermarket? What an unexpected meditation to begin my Lent.
A Lenten Meditation
The classical meditation of Ash Wednesday calls upon us to reflect on our mortality and sinfulness as we enter the penitential period of Lent. The ancient practice dates back to the eighth century. When the priest puts the ashes in the form of the cross upon our foreheads, he reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
However, meditation need not deal exclusively with the intricacies of spiritual life. Broadly speaking, anything can serve as a point of meditation as long as it facilitates a pious communication of the soul with God and helps us know, love, and serve God better. Sometimes a casual event at a supermarket can trigger a meditation.
My non-classical meditation on “Ashes to Go” certainly did get me thinking of a broader picture. I could not help but reflect that this incident was one of those only-in-America paradoxes that can be so fascinating to those who want to observe life. Things like this break some old preconceptions about our secular society that is really not so secular. I saw in the fact that so many receive ashes as a sign of God calling the nation to him. It awakened hope in me amidst a nation in crisis.
You have to admit there is something quintessentially American about the idea of “Ashes to Go.” It is part of our admirably practical side that sees problems and works out ways to get something done, and quickly. In this particular case, the problem was ashes inside a church and people outside it. The solution was to bring the ashes to a place where everyone goes—the supermarket. First problem solved.
A second problem was how to communicate instantly the fact that the ashes are available at such an unconventional place. The solution was to frame them inside a familiar template of the pickup window or quick service platform—“to go.” One quick glance at the sign made it immediately clear to the shopper in a hurry what was going on.
And yet there is also something superficial in the concept, likewise American. While highly efficient and practical, “Ashes to Go” does somehow participate in the frenetic intemperance of a fast, materialistic and mechanical culture that tend to reduce everything—even the sacred—to a “to go” platform.
It has overtones of pop theology that I obviously do not agree with. However, what really struck me about the incident was the avidity of Americans to receive and wear these ashes, even in the public square.
A Counter-Cultural Message
While the means to administer the ashes used there was arguably very American, the message of the ashes themselves was shockingly counter-cultural. What makes ashes on Ash Wednesday so incredibly powerful is the fact that it is appealing, public, and highly symbolic. The ashes touch something very profound in the American soul that refreshingly defies the culture. Liberal media stay carefully away from criticizing it.
It is well known that lines stretch around the block near New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral as Catholics and non-Catholics alike wait to receive ashes on this special day. All across the nation, people can be seen crowding the churches (and supermarkets) to receive this sooty badge of honor. It is amazing that more Americans flock to church on Ash Wednesday than on Christmas, Easter, or any other day.
Even politicians on both sides of the aisle don ash crosses in the hallowed halls of Congress and statehouses. On this one day, at least, no one dares attack this very personal sign of the faith.
A Public Witness
While the ash cross is a very personal sign, it is undeniably public. And that is the extreme beauty of it.
It cannot be ignored since it occupies the forehead, the most prominent part of the face. At a time when atheists are taking down crosses in the public square, they must watch helplessly as millions wear them proudly on their foreheads everywhere.
As a public witness, the cross commands respect and benefits not only the wearer but those who cannot help but see it. The dark, somber cross provokes others to reflect on God, religion and repentance.
The Anti-Hollywood Statement
However, the intense symbolism of this tradition is its most striking aspect. This symbol provokes a spectacular clash with our liberal culture that puts self-interest above everything. Nothing could be more contrary to the hypersexualized Hollywood message that life exists to be enjoyed to its fullest. The millions of small ash crosses are a rebuke to the secular establishment who would exile God from all aspects of life, and invite him back.
By wearing the cross on the forehead, we put on the symbol of suffering and redemption. We are reminded of the crosses that we are called to carry in our lives. We reflect upon how we have sinned and offended the good God. It is the symbol of our victory over the modern world that oppresses us.
By wearing ashes upon our foreheads, we don the symbol of our mortality—that dust to which we must return. We are invited to meditate upon what the Catholic Church calls the “Four Last Things”—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Scriptures says that if we ponder these last things, we will not be lost eternally. We are called to penance in contrast to Hollywood’s self-gratification.
The symbolism of the ash cross broaches forbidden subjects banished from our culture that you are not supposed to think about on the way to the supermarket.
Sign of Hope
But that is the way God often works. I close my unconventional meditation with the consideration that the fact there is still a strong vein inside American society turned toward things, religious and spiritual, is a sign of hope. There is an attraction to things sublime that is spurned by our culture. This yearning for something more is aided by a grace of God that is calling us to him. And this grace is powerful.
I believe there are many in our postmodern wasteland who clash with the culture and are searching for God. I pray that every day of this Lent might be an Ash Wednesday in which each of us might serve as a beacon to direct these who are searching for him.
This Lent I will clash with the culture. Wherever I am, I will remember my “ashes to go.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a truck driver using a drive-thru service at a Catholic parish in Galway, Ireland, for Ash Wednesday.